SEATTLE — Although Portland might get more publicity, knowledgeable foodies know that Seattle might just have the best restaurant, cocktail and coffee scene in the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle’s love affair with great food has been going on for a long time. And the epicenter of food in the city is the famous Pike Place Market, stuffing locals and visitors with fine fresh and prepared viands for well more than a century.
The first day the farmers market opened, in 1907, a reported 10,000 customers showed up. The eight farmers who brought goods sold out in minutes. The number of buyers and sellers has swelled (with a few ups and downs) since then.
On an average day, 30,000 to 50,000 shoppers visit the market, housed in many buildings over several blocks in downtown Seattle near the waterfront. Amid the crowds, learning the ins and outs of the market’s 500 or so businesses can be a challenge for a newcomer. I recommend a guided food tour to really get a good taste (pun intended) of Pike Place.
I’ve become a real fan of food/history tours. I’ve taken such tours in Boston, San Francisco and, perhaps most delightfully, Annapolis, Maryland. My Savor Seattle food tour of Pike Place was another treat, mixing the best of food and market history.
The morning “VIP Insider Tour” got our small group into the market well before the crowds reached peak size. Our young guide, Warren Haney, offered a constant stream of history, amusing anecdotes and just enough saucy puns to whet our appetites.
Each of our stops included a tasting, with no waiting in lines. The food we had along the way made for a satisfying and tasty early lunch.
The pattern was set at our first stop, Daily Dozen Donuts, where Haney skipped the long line, disappeared behind the counter and reappeared with several trays of small, bacon-topped pastries. Yes, bacon-topped. There were plenty of the amazingly delectable samples to go around; I think I had four.
In all, we visited more than a half-dozen of the most iconic or innovative vendors at Pike Place, including Ellenos Greek Yogurt, Frank’s Quality Produce, Pear Delicatessen and Rachel’s Ginger Beer.
Along the way, Haney related the long, fascinating history of the market.
Pike Place suffered a downturn after World War II and was nearly torn down in the 1960s. But local architect Victor Steinbrueck, who helped design Seattle’s iconic Space Needle, was one of the leaders of a successful campaign to save the market, which now thrives and attracts more than 10 million visitors a year.
MarketSpice is one of the oldest vendors in Pike Place. The shop offers hundreds of specially mixed blends of teas and spices. We tasted several intriguing spice blends during our visit. But best of all was the shop’s tantalizing smell: Familiar favorites mixed with unknown exotics, an aroma that seemed to linger on the edge of sensation like a beautiful, almost-forgotten dream.
MarketSpice was started, we learned, by a woman who hated tea until she made her own blend using essential oils procured from her pharmacist husband. That was in 1911. Although some of the hundreds of jars of tea and spices look like they could date back to the opening, all are emptied each week and refilled to assure freshness.
Another stop, the Pike Place Fish Market, offered an astounding variety of fresh seafood, which, of course, could be packed in special shipping containers and sent home, wherever home might be. The shop, however, is most noted for its famous fish tossing. Workers fill orders, when necessary, by tossing huge fish from one side of the shop to the other.
Although fish tossing might save a few steps, I suspect it’s primarily done now for the camera-toting tourists. The piscine pitch-and-catch was certainly a sight to see, and lots of fun, especially when the youngest member of our tour got to go behind the counter and try his hand at it.
We also ducked into the Pike Place Urban Garden, a lovely, colorful rooftop garden tended by volunteers that supplies produce to the Pike Market Senior Center and Food Bank. The peaceful garden, open to the public during daylight hours, offered a brief respite from the market crowds and a beautiful view of Elliott Bay and the distant mountains across Puget Sound.
Along the way to our next stop, we passed a huge line outside the very first Starbucks coffee shop — which, our guide noted, isn’t really the first Starbucks. The original actually relocated to the current site from a nearby location.
“But let ‘em be blissful,” Haney suggested as we cruised on by.
One of our last stops, Country Dough, was, appropriately enough, our most filling. We sampled wonderful spicy Chinese flatbread sandwiches, which filled up any remaining empty corners of our stomachs. There were even extras for those who wanted a little nosh for the road.
If You Go
SEATTLE’S PIKE PLACE MARKET
The farmers market, begun in 1907, is one of the oldest continuously operating public markets in the country. The more than 500 businesses in the market district attract more than 10 million visitors a year.
Several companies offer guided tours of Pike Place, including Savor Seattle, 206-209-5485, SavorSeattleTours.com, and Eat Seattle, 206-693-0537, eatseattletours.com.
For more information about Pike Place and a complete list of authorized tour companies, visit pikeplacemarket.org.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter